From 1896 until 1946, the Fairmount Park Trolley carried passengers through East and West Fairmount Park, looping from Memorial Hall and 52nd Street to Belmont Plateau and the Woodside Amusement Park. The trolley ride provided a unique and memorable way for visitors to access and explore Fairmount Park, making 14 of its 16 stops in West Fairmount Park. For almost 50 years, passengers rode in open-aired trolley cars during the summer and enclosed cars in the winter, with passing views of grazing sheep and horse-drawn carriages that would later be replaced by cars.
The loop is open again, but now welcomes walkers, runners, bikers, and even horseback riders as a revitalized trail route that follows the pathway of the scenic trolley ride through West Fairmount Park. After years of renovation and some new construction, work on the 4-mile loop of the Fairmount Park Trolley Trail was completed in 2021. With a new gateway to the trail installed in fall 2022 and the final signage and trail markers installed this summer, Fairmount Park Conservancy joined Philadelphia Parks & Recreation (PPR), the Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance (BPTA), trail enthusiasts, and community members to celebrate the official ribbon-cutting for the Trolley Trail on November 5th.
“While park users and nearby residents have been exploring the Trolley Trail for several years, we are so excited to officially cut the ribbon on this project and celebrate the years of dedicated time and effort from the Conservancy and our partners at PPR and BPTA to establish and maintain this treasured trail in West Fairmount Park,” said Maura McCarthy, the Conservancy’s Chief Executive Officer. “The physical remains of the hidden trolley network along this 4-mile loop encourage us all to connect with the history in our parks and grow our sense of discovery.”
The goal of the Fairmount Park Trolley Trail project was to construct a multi-purpose loop trail that created linkages to the rich history of West Fairmount Park and the early 20th-century trolley that traversed the park’s scenic terrain. With the end of trolley service in 1946 and the decline of park trail maintenance in the post-World War II era, the trolley route had gradually become inaccessible until a new system of user-created trails emerged in the 1990s-2000s with the rise of mountain biking in West Fairmount Park. In 2007, park staff began mapping these newer user-created trails and started working with park-recognized stewardship group, BPTA, to adjust or close trails harmful to park habitats. It was not until 2014 that the idea to establish a “Trolley Trail” emerged from The New Fairmount Park Plan — a broad, multi-phased effort to enhance accessibility of park amenities, reduce the physical and perceptual barriers to park use, and provide “maps and apps” to allow citizens and visitors to better curate their park experiences.
With limited funding, the Conservancy, in partnership with PPR and BPTA initiated work in 2017 to begin incrementally building the Trolley Trail. In the process, rogue trail segments were closed and rerouted to reduce the impact of existing trails on the local ecosystem and ensure the long-term sustainability of the Trolley Trail. Following heightened attention of the trail project in 2018, the Conservancy was able to complete the fundraising to construct the 4-mile loop trail, install wayfinding and interpretive trail signage, plant more than 400 trees and shrubs, and establish a new, prominent gateway entrance to the trail at the Chamounix Picnic Area.
Today, the trail offers a unique experience, according to Kevin Roche, the Conservancy’s Director of Institutional Giving, who has led countless guided hikes and trail runs on the Trolley Trail during his tenure. “You go on a nature hike and you bump into remnants from this forgotten era of Philadelphia history,” says Roche. “It’s a mixture of nature and history and it’s close enough to Center City to encourage exploration and discovery.” Visitors to the trail will discover old tunnels, platforms, pedestrian bridges, and other remnants from the days of the trolley line. The trail’s undisputed star attraction, however, is the iconic Skew Arch Bridge, which consists of 15 brick arches. In November 2022, the Conservancy secured funding to complete targeted masonry repairs to the Bridge, which will be a critical first step in a larger restoration effort to ensure that the bridge remains safe for trail users and sustainable as a place of discovery for future park visitors.
The new interpretive signage should pique park users’ interest and curiosity in the history of the Trolley Trail, which was created for city residents who would not normally be able to access and experience the park and its scenic views. The website The Trolley Dodger notes that the experience was so enjoyable that “Reports indicate that many people refused to get off the cars at the end of the [trolley] line, having enjoyed it so much they went for multiple rides. This created problems on busy days.” Another one of the installed signs mentions Woodside Amusement Park, which operated from 1897 to 1955 and had multiple roller coasters, boardwalk-style games, and a carousel that is now housed in the Please Touch Museum.
Walking the entire 4-mile trolley trail loop can take up to two hours and is considered a moderate hike due to some grade changes. Since the trail is a four-foot-wide multi-use path, trail users must yield to each other when necessary. The Trolley Trail draws an estimated 10,000 annual visitors, and while the trail is quiet compared to the popular trails of the Wissahickon, the Trolley Trail’s usership is expected to increase thanks to the Conservancy’s continued public programming and promotion of the completed project.
Ashley Cordova, a Project Supporter, spoke at the ribbon cutting on November 5th and said, “ As I look around, I see more than just a pathway through trees. I see an opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of our daily lives and spend time in reflection and connection. I live just across City Line Ave down Belmont and find it incredible that, in the midst of the sixth most populated city in the US, the Fairmount Park Conservancy has charted a 4.5-mile forest stroll that I can visit on my lunch hour. I see a living tribute to history and nature, a ribbon winding through the woods that binds us to the earth and to each other.”
Find out more about the Trolley Trail and see the trail map here: https://myphillypark.org/what-we-do/capital-projects/trolley-trail/.
Guided hikes of the Trolley Trail will take place on the following dates: November 12 and December 3rd, both at 10 AM. Click here to register!
The Trolley Trail project has been generously supported by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, the Cordova Family, the 25th Century Foundation, the Adelberg Estates, the PA Department of Public Health, the Bader Foundation, REI, and the Sierra Club.